Platform4: It's up to the media to reconnect science and politics

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The Independent Online
Until election fever broke out, the media were offering a diet that focused more on mad cows than man-sized chickens. Science was in vogue, with topics ranging from CJD to genetically engineered salmon and sheep. The theme was one of technological potential and human folly; good science and bad practice. It gave good headlines, too: who can forget necrotising fasciitis's "Killer bug ate my face"? The style was apocalyptic but it was one that the public found easy to grasp.

Now science is off the agenda. On trawling round the main political parties for their science policies, I was repeatedly advised that science isn't sexy enough for a general election. Apparently the media don't rate it as an audience-winner, and voters don't understand the complex issues involved in BSE or genetics. This time round, we're not even pretending to go green. When it comes to science, it seems, we are a nation of dullards and looking to the future means taking out a private pension plan.

On 1 May we will probably be electing the last government of this century. As well as being on a temporal knife-edge, we are on a scientific and cultural one. Technological breakthroughs - whether in genetics, computing or medicine - will change the nature of our lives. Progress is occurring at such a rate that a yawning policy gap is opening up.

Science has become our Frankenstein's monster. Caught up with the thrill of what we can do, we've got mice growing human ears, pigs carrying human genes, video cameras that can recognise your face. We may think these issues don't affect us, but what happens when your insurance company wants you to take a genetic test for cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer's? Most people understand all too well what that could mean to them, financially and emotionally.

The public understood enough to vote with its feet when beef from BSE cows was linked with CJD. We also had no problem linking poultry feed made from chicken remains to salmonella. We also know that since the war, Britain has gone for a food policy based on low cost rather than high quality. When even our daily bread could soon be the result of genetic engineering, are the politicians serious that science has no place in decisions about our lives?

When politicians do not deliver the goods for a better future, the media should be there to take up the debate. There are issues, such as global warming, that are bigger than Europe; issues, such as research funding, that will affect he nature of the world we will live in. Biotechnology is welcomed as one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy, but feared when it breaks new ground. Without the media, there's no one to mediate between science and society. But the media seem more interested in apocalypse than analysis.

This is a gross oversight. Science has had more impact on our lives than politics could ever have. Even the current pensions crisis can be put down to medical advances improving longevity and contraception.

When science and society fail to connect, the media must step in and bridge the gap. But unless the media can move beyond sensationalising or ignoring science, and towards embedding it in the mainstream political agenda, we won't be making an informed choice in the forthcoming electionn

Vanessa Collingridge presents 'The Sci Files' at 7.30pm on BBC2 tonight.